In 2014 I had the opportunity to attend Salt Lake City’s inaugural convention, FantasyCon. I hadn’t been to a Con in years and when I had attended, it was either as a vendor or helping out with the live action role playing (LARPs). This time it was purely as a spectator (sort of, I was also scoping out the venue as a possibility for selling the Bonds of Blood & Spirit Saga next year). I had three whole days packed with all kinds of interesting panels with guest speakers.
Among these panels was one called What Makes a Great Villain? Wendi and I know what makes a great villain, and I was curious to see what the other experts thought. I wasn’t disappointed, this panel was one of the best I attended.
The Characters We Love to Hate
The panel started off by naming their own favorite villains. Voldemort, Hannibal Lechter and Billy Bob Thorton’s Lorne Malvo in FX’s first season of Fargo on TV topped the lists, except for my personal and most recent favorite, Joffery Baratheon from Game of Thrones. These are the characters we love to hate. They’re so bad, so vile, they turn our stomachs and clench our fists. They make life hell for our heroes, but without them, is there really any story left to tell?
Think about it, if there was no villain, where would the conflict be? That begs the question, what makes a good villain?
A villain is more than an antagonist. Antagonists also stir up trouble, but they can be good guys. There’s the bumbling sidekick who inadvertently throws a wrench into the hero’s journey, there are well-intentioned love interests and family who do the same thing. There’s even the hero who becomes his own antagonist, constantly getting in his own way. They’re not bad, they just don’t know any better. They’re doing the best they can with what they’ve got and mucking everything up in the process. Antagonists create conflict, a villain holds his own.
A Legend In His Own Mind
As Tom Hiddleston (Loki) said above, a villain is the hero of his own story. He’s got his own back story, his own motivations, his own agenda. Does a villain choose to be a bad guy? In most cases, no. The character didn’t wake up one morning and say, “Gee, I think I’ll become a villain. Sounds like an excellent career choice.” No, their path is shaped by their circumstances, whether it’s a wrong done to them in childhood, an injustice done to someone they love, an obsession turned dark…in many ways they have the same motivations as a hero, only the filter on the world has gotten warped and they’re doing their best to fix it in the only way they know how.
A good villain has motivation. Villainy for it’s own sake is hollow and pointless. Okay, Dr. Evil, why exactly do you want to rule the world? If we take that example from Mike Meyers’ Austin Powers, it isn’t until the third installment in the series that we find out Dr. Evil wanted approval as much as Austin did. Instead of doing good, he found it easier to get attention and approval through evil instead of good.
Loki in Marvel’s Thor was the same way. He always felt second best to Odin’s natural son, Thor. Loki could never shine in Thor’s shadow. So he slipped farther into the darkness and made his mark.
Good villains have depth. You don’t have to agree with their motives to understand them. Many times the villain is a mirror image of the hero. Another example would be in our own Saga, the conflict between Diego and Flynn, or Regina and Dupree. They all started from nothing, went through some horrendous child and adulthoods. Flynn and Dupree took the road to hell, while Diego and Regina took the road to glory. At any point, one could have easily tipped the balance of their lives into the dark or light. Flynn had regrets, second thoughts. Even Dupree had a few, but not in the way we would expect…that man was just an outright sociopath. There were times Diego often wondered if all his work was worth it, or if the choices he made were too harsh, or not harsh enough. Regina spent her whole live feeling like a failure. But they all did the best they could, for better or worse, and stuck to what they believed was their Truth.
All or Nothing
One point raised during the panel was the fact that a villain will always go all the way. Even to the point of his/her own destruction. Heroes are very much into their own self-preservation, and protecting others. Think about it, how many villains do you know of that do anything half-assed? I can’t name any. A villain is obsessed with their goal. They will destroy themselves, the people around them, the world if need be.
A villain is bent on making his/her world “right” at any cost and they’re blind to the consequences.
One Last Thought
So, with all of this taken into account, is it the villain who writes the story? Without a good, strong villain, can our heroes be just as strong and good? Can a story thrive without a villain to keep things interesting?
I’m sure it can be done, and has been done. Personally though, I enjoy creating villains. For me, any primary character has to have depth. Sure, Dupree and Flynn could have been one dimensional antagonists, but where’s the fun in that? We as writers needed to understand their motivations, we needed to know what made them tick, why they did what they did. We know our readers want that too.
How about you? Who’s your favorite all time villain? Tell us in the comments and why you love to hate them so much.
Deb’s Note: Here’s a little ad for Jaguar I found online. Mr. Hiddleston elaborates on why Brits make the best villains. Apparently some Brits wanted this ad pulled because, as The Mary Sue reports, “at least one English television watcher… filed a formal consumer complaint suggesting that the ad encourages car owners to emulate Hiddleston’s reckless driving”.